It would seem to be bad luck that Super Dark Times happened to come out just before the second season of a certain much-beloved Netflix series, not to mention in the same year as It, which you may remember as the highest-grossing horror movie of all time. The collective pop culture presence around those two titles could be more than enough to keep a low-budget, star-free American indie dealing in similarly nostalgic iconography from getting the attention it deserves. “We made this movie before we knew what Stranger Things was,” Super Dark Times director Kevin Phillips told Rue Morgue, but he shouldn’t sweat the comparison. Not only does the Duffer brothers’ cutesy Spielberg knockoffery look even more innocuous next to the unsettling psychological complexity of Super Dark Times, but It’s jump scares seem rote and mechanical as well. Phillips’s beautifully directed and acted debut is the year’s superior spooky kids-on-bikes coming-of-age fable.
It’s also—as many critics have already pointed out—a spiritual descendant of Tim Hunter’s terrific 1986 drama River’s Edge, about a group of teenagers scarily unfazed—and even excited—by a murder committed by one of their classmates. “The things I do for my fucking friends,” snarled Layne (played by Crispin Glover), justifying his decision to not go to the police as proof of his loyalty when it’s really evidence of emotional paralysis. Coming near the end of a decade ruled by John Hughes’s empathetic breakfast-clubbers and sweet-sixteeners, River’s Edge’s hazy portrait of a teenage wasteland was especially bracing. Whether actively guilty or simply complicit, the kids in Hunter’s film didn’t have any innocence left to lose.
Super Dark Times’ story of an accidental death and subsequent cover-up is imbued with a similar feeling of moral ambivalence. It begins with a dreamlike prologue in which a deer lies dying on the floor of a high school classroom—a wounded creature waiting to be put out of its misery. In the context of the film’s mid-’90s setting, this opening vignette, with its tracking shots through hallways lined with lockers and stained with blood, poetically and ruthlessly evokes collective cultural memories of school shootings in the years to come. The image is of a childhood sanctuary violated by random, inexplicable violence; it’s an ominous sign.
In general, Phillips uses pastness more subtly than the nostalgia-mongering of Stranger Things, with its audience-flattering pileup of vintage movie posters and post-punk mixtapes (i.e. making sure we know a character is cool because he listens to the Clash).
There are some choice ’90s reference points in Super Dark Times, from television news footage of a speechifying, pre–Lewinsky scandal Bill Clinton, and a desktop computer displaying a half-played game of Minesweeper. The deathless Primitive Radio Gods song plays during a makeout scene. But these references are texture rather than the point of the exercise (although a bit where two of the characters argue over who would win a fight between Silver Surfer and Punisher calls back to Stand by Me pretty loudly).
This one indulgence aside, Super Dark Times isn’t cute; it’s brutal and unsparing. The cold open with the deer is quickly confirmed as foreshadowing: One overcast after-school afternoon, Josh (Charlie Tahan) and Zach (Owen Campbell) head into the woods with pal Daryl (Max Talisman) and middle schooler Charlie (Sawyer Barth) to slice up milk cartons with a sword left behind by Josh’s enlisted-man older brother. A few hours later, Daryl lies dead under a pile of leaves and the other three bike home, too scared to even get their stories straight. There is a nightmarish sense of plausibility to the setup, not only in the clumsy, horseplay-gone-awry choreography of Daryl’s death but the script’s acute observations of how the essentially private, sensitive nature of adolescence gets heightened to an unbearable degree by guilt.
Phillips finds ingenious ways to communicate these ideas visually, like an early image of scrambled pay-per-view porn, suggesting a sexual desire that can’t quite show itself—or maybe hasn’t quite come into formation. This inchoate potency is Super Dark Times’ real subject: Where Stranger Things pits its plucky kids against external forces ranging from extra-dimensional monsters to shady government operatives, Phillips’s characters are eaten up from the inside out. And unlike in River’s Edge, it’s not because they’re ignored. Zach’s mother, Karen (Amy Hargreaves), isn’t one of those oblivious movie parents who doesn’t notice that her son is behaving strangely; she tries to get him to explain what’s wrong, but he pulls away. Zach is similarly reticent with Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), his longtime crush, whose sudden advances only serve to exacerbate his paranoia (and plunge him into dreams with a morbid eroticism partially cribbed from Lars von Trier’s Antichrist).
Zach’s difficulty processing his role as a bystander is juxtaposed with Josh’s reaction to being the one who wielded the blade. Where one recedes, the other disappears completely, cutting class and refusing to leave his room. Until suddenly he does, and the film shifts gears from a study of trauma into a more conventional (but still eerily effective) horror movie, with Josh (who looks more than a little like Glover in River’s Edge) enthusiastically casting himself in the role of psycho killer, as if trying to live up to what he worries his best friend thinks he’s become anyway. “My power is untethered and ever growing,” Josh tells Zach at one point, using his best comic book supervillain voice. He’s kidding, except that he isn’t.
Given the sensitivity of the acting and the ingenuity of its visuals and sound design, it’s slightly disappointing that Super Dark Times doesn’t carve out a more imaginative narrative path, but it’s still an impressive piece of work that deserves to be seen. And if it takes the hype around something more mainstream to draw attention to its existence, well, stranger things have happened.